Editor's note: A St. Luke's hospital official confirmed Wednesday that President and CEO Kevin Nokels is stepping down. More information is expected later Wednesday afternoon.

With a pandemic swirling around them, some St. Luke's hospital office staffers in Duluth are wondering why they’re confronting the virus head-on and not working from home.

Their concerns are juxtaposed against both a chief executive who the employees say values in-person attendance and state guidance that says non-critical employees ought to be working remotely whenever possible.

The News Tribune talked with two office staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid conflict, about concerns they have working inside the facility.

The workers come in contact with nurses, doctors and other frontline staffers, but the office employees themselves are not involved in patient care. The workers say they have watched co-workers go into quarantine after exposure, or isolation after contracting the virus. They wear masks except when they’re at their office desks.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

And as the situation intensifies around them, they’re worried.

“I’m afraid to be back,” one of the workers said. “I don’t go anywhere near the cafeteria, or anything like that, because I don’t want to leave my workspace.”

They say positions in departments such as information technology, human resources, medical records and business management had all migrated to working from home during the early stages of the pandemic from March through May.

Kevin Nokels
Kevin Nokels

But employees were called back in the summer. They contend President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Nokels doesn't want staff working from home except for special circumstances or unless a person is actively in quarantine following exposure to COVID-19, workers said.

The employees said they’ve spoken with people above them, who sympathize with them.

The workers were called back to work in the summer, but say they were provided no emails or memos communicating the rationale for why they were called back to on-site work.

"No one has ever communicated the need to be back," a source said.

Nokels was made aware of the employees' allegations through a hospital spokesperson, and he declined to be interviewed after a News Tribune request. When confronted with the employees' contentions, Nokels refuted the claims. When asked about not allowing office staff to work from home, he said, through hospital spokesperson Melissa Burlaga: "That wasn't the case."

"Those interested in working remotely can talk through that option with their manager to assure that they can successfully work remotely," Nokels said in the statement. "Currently, we have more than 400 employees set up to work from home."

The workers agreed they had everything they needed to do their jobs from home, and said they were as productive at home as they could be — sometimes even working more intensely from home.

"A lot of positions like IT, accounting — all those types of positions — could all be done remotely forever," one source said.

Through a spokesperson, the News Tribune asked Nokels if managers are allowed to approve working-from-home for special circumstances, but not for any long-haul purposes since coming back to work last summer. Again, Nokels said, "That is also not the case," and reaffirmed that "employees are able to work remotely by talking through that option with their manager."

The workers also agreed managers will allow them to work from home, but only under special circumstances, and not regularly.

One source said their manager "doesn't want to take heat for it if someone notices."

Gov. Tim Walz’s most recent executive order last month implored those who can to work remotely: “Continue to work from home whenever possible. Any worker who can work from home must do so.”

The Minnesota Department of Health also notes that “if there is a dispute about an employee's ability to work from home, we encourage the employer and employee to work collaboratively to come up with a solution in light of the order’s directive that all critical sector workers who can work from home must do so.”

The workers said they know co-workers who have been quarantined for being exposed to the virus and even people who have had to isolate after contracting the virus.

“What happens is more people are coming back positive and it’s wiping out entire departments unnecessarily — people that do not need to be on-site,” one source said.

They said St. Luke's has handled any employee who has COVID-19 “very well, and accordingly, and with total respect toward patient care.”

“We can’t walk in the building without declaring we have no symptoms,” one of the workers said. “If we have symptoms, we’re turned away; they immediately put us in quarantine.”

To compare situations, the News Tribune asked Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth what its practice was as far as non-critical staffers working from home.

The policy is “meaty,” spokesman Louie St. George said, but the hospital does allow for it.

“We have a significant number of our staff working remotely,” St. George said. “Foundationally, roles that can be performed remotely are being done that way.”

Any upward trajectory of in-hospital infections at St. Luke's raises the level of concern in the workplace, the workers said.

"This year has been challenging with many changes due to the pandemic," Nokels added in the only other words of his statement. "One of those changes has been having some employees work remotely. In a health care setting, some employees are unable to work remotely given their critical work in caring for patients or supporting other team members in caring for patients."

The employees said they wished the hospital would revert to its practice from last spring, when non-patient-attending office staffers worked remotely.

The state health department notes the risk of working inside a facility: "Some situations can put staff at risk for infection, including providing direct care or working in the same space as people with COVID-19."

One worker spoke about how they felt when they walk into work.

“I’m nervous,” one of the workers said. “I try to be as cautious as possible. It can be frustrating knowing that I can do my job from home and yet I still have to come in and take a chance.”